Set in the height of the cold war 1962, Baltimore, Eliza Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a mute cleaner at a secret research facility. She only has two other people she can communicate with, her friendly neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins) is a flailing gay artist with more cats than he can count and her other friend is her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) who does enough talking for the both of them.
Two forces of nature enter her world when a mysterious creature locked in a water tank known as the asset under the security of Strickland (Michael Shannon) who carries a cattle prod like it is a beloved relative. They intend to study it to see if they can gain an advantage over the Russians to beat them in the space race. In the eyes of Strickland, it’s an abomination in the name of God. A bloody accident leaves Eliza to clean up the room unattended, where she encounters the monster and shares a moment where she believes she has communicated with it. Enthused by her interaction, she secretly finds time to build her relationship with the monster whilst unattended cleaning, or sneaking into the room. When the order is giving for the monster to be killed, Eliza sets out to rescue the creature with the help of her friends along with the scientist Bob Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg). Rescuing is one thing, trying to return it home is another challenge with the odious and bloody thirsty Strickland hunting them down.
This feels like a slight change of direction for Guillermo Del Toro, with The Shape of Water a much more charming and lighter affair than some of his previous work, perhaps to create the sense of homage to classical B-movie horror movies, a obvious note to the Monster of The Black Lagoon. And it works so well. Del Toro’s main strengths usually lie in the worlds he creates along with the lurking monsters that inhabit them. But the script he has co-written with Vanessa Taylor is full of wit, bounce and charm, which is matched by the seductive artistic direction and photography by Dan Lausten along with the sounds of a French accordion that all add up to neatly synced whimsical affair. Yet it still has the Del Toro trademarks of horror and gory dismemberment of limbs. Without the gore, it could possibly be quite easy to make the film more family orientated and I don’t think it might have been a lesser film if it was so. Del Toro does explore themes of racial and sexual inequality rife in the conservatism and lack of equal rights at the time. It somewhat sets up the feeling of ostracisation many of the characters face, thus perhaps the rational why they empathise with the creature and need to save it. But it never quite feels like these themes are explored fully. Other minor gripes is the almost rapid development of bonding between Eliza and the creature and the fact no one ever seems to be quite in shock seeing the creature.
Whilst not perfect, I have no doubt that it should go down well with Del Toro fans but equally it should appeal to those who still pine for Tim Burton to go back to his best. It’s an exceptional cast that is probably just stolen by Richard Jenkins who just executes his lines to a T. I dare say, The Shape of Water may be Del Toro’s best work yet.